Of Schemes and Memes Blog

Mapping the brain

Charlotte Stoddart
Head of Multimedia, Nature

Recently, Europe and the United States committed large chunks of money to brain research; The European Commission’s Human Brain Project and Obama’s BRAIN Initiative were both launched this year. There seems to be a real push by politicians and the science community to understand the brain, an organ of staggering complexity. One way to get to grips with this complexity is to map it. But tracing the precise path of every neuron, including its multiple branches and connections, is difficult and immensely time-consuming – a human brain contains over 80 billion nerve cells. Recently, scientists have managed to map scraps of brain tissue containing hundreds of cells. That might not sound impressive, but it’s a huge improvement.

Two years ago, researchers at Harvard Medical School and the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research mapped tiny pieces of mouse brain including just 20-30 cells – and I made a video about it.

In this week’s Nature, we’re publishing another mouse brain map but this one reconstructs the branches and connections of 950 cells. To understand how they made the jump from tens to hundreds of cells – and how far we are from mapping a whole brain – I decided to make another video.

The new mouse map – and a map of a piece of fruitfly optic lobe, also published this week – show that seeing the micro-scale structure of the brain leads to new insights into brain function, in this case how the brain processes visual information. Sceptics have asked if ultra high-resolution brain mapping is worth the effort. These papers, published alongside a physiological study of the same area of fruitfly brain, begin to answer that doubt. We’re still a long way from mapping a whole human brain, but I look forward to following the brain mappers’ progress.



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